Scene Layering with an Example…

[This is from a chat craft I did for Savvy Authors in March--the color coded example is at the end]

I think you can tell the sophistication of an author by the amount of layering going into a scene.  We don’t want too little or too much…there’s a subtle balance to find.  (I know there are tons of articles about this on the internet and I think the most important thing to remember is to find what works for you.)  Some people layer as they go, others write a scene and then go back to layer.

I pretty much write the first draft and am thrilled if it comes to 65k.  Then I go back and get to know my characters so I can layer—ending up at about 90k.  That’s the key.  Layering is done through REVEALING your characters. 

So what is layering?  It’s adding the texture, the personality to the scene—personality to your characters.  From what I’ve gathered, there are seven things to think about adding. 

1)    Dialogue.  What your character says…or doesn’t say is where a scene starts.  The interaction, how characters relate to each other verbally shows so much about them.  Do they watch their words?  Are they brutally honest?  Do their actions and reactions seem in line with the actual words?  But then we need more, or all we have is a couple of talking heads.

2)   Action.  Action breaks up the dialogue.  What types of action might your character be doing while she’s telling her ex-boyfriend to jump off a cliff?  Maybe she’s reaching for a bat, which might hint to the reader that she’s got a bit of a temper.  Or maybe she’s inching away, which hints to the reader that maybe the guy’s a bad guy…and hits. 

Or…maybe she’s sliding into a fighting stance, subtly and naturally.  Showing the reader that this guy may hit…and this gal knows how to fight.

Make the action a natural one for your character.  

3)   Reaction.  We all react differently to situations.  So will your characters…internally and in dialogue.  If a guy comes at me with a bat, I’d probably hold up my hands and try to talk him out of smacking me.  NOT the best defense.  But my kick-ass heroine..well now.  She’d go for the jugular.  (I need to take a karate class, I think.)

4)   Emotions.  What are they?  Characters can feel more than one emotion at a time…someone dumping their boyfriend might feel both relief and sadness.  And our bodies react to emotions.  What’s fun, is often the dialogue completely contradicts the emotions.  Our heroine needs to keep her chin up, after all.

5)   Senses.  Use them all.  But here’s a key:  notice only what your character would notice.  If your hero is color blind, there’s no reason to describe the sparkling blue of the heroine’s eyes.  He can’t see that.  He can see her lush hips, tilted chin…etc.  And smell her natural lilac scent.

6)   Setting/Atmosphere.  Same thing here…your character might see a room differently than you do.  I walk into my husband’s den, and I see it needs to be vacuumed and I left my favorite socks on the couch.  He would see the pillows goofed up on the couch and know I let the dogs in and didn’t watch them.  One of his buddies might walk in and let out a whistle at the ridiculously large television.  A Broncos fan would walk in and snarl at all the Oakland Raider goodies.  I don’t even see that stuff.  You reveal your character by what they see, hear, smell…

7)   Backstory.  If you’ve done it right, numbers 1-6 have created your backstory for you.  There’s no big info dump needed…you’ve spread it throughout.  For example, my heroine walks into my home office.  She immediately spots the fairy figurine on the desk, reminding her of the one her boyfriend Joe won at their small town’s fair last year.  (Oh yeah, a bit of backstory WHILE the setting is being described.)   

To sum up:  Layer to round out your scene so the reader might as well be your character.  Don’t layer to:  Add word count…or describe a room.  Your reader doesn’t care what the room looks likes.  You reader cares about what the room means to the character…and what he or she sees.  And how what they notice reveals more about them.

So…how about a rough example?  It needs editing, but I think gets the point across.

TALKING HEADS

“You’re a jerk,” Milly said.

“A jerk?  I’m trying to save you,” Jakob said.

“I don’t need saving.”

“Yes you do.”

“Like I said, you’re a jerk.”

 LAYER

 “You’re a jerk.” Milly slammed her hands on her hips. 

“A jerk?  I’m trying to save you.” Jakob grabbed the gun from his waist.

“I don’t need saving.”  She inched to his side, careful to step over the broken board. 

“Yes you do.”  He lifted a slat of the blinds, peering into the darkness. 

She fought a sneeze. “Like I said, you’re a jerk.”  She reached for the knife in her boot. 

LAYER MORE

“You’re a jerk.” Milly slammed her hands on her hips.  The smoke billowing under the door filled her nostrils, making her eyes water. 

“A jerk?  I’m trying to save you.” Jakob grabbed the gun from his waist, his voice lowering to a growl.

 “I don’t need saving.”  She inched to his side, careful to step over the broken board.  His scent of sage and man wafted through the smoke. 

“Yes you do.”  He lifted a slat of the blinds, peering into the darknessDust rose. 

She fought a sneeze.  “Like I said, you’re a jerk.”  She reached for the knife in her boot. 

LAYER SOME MORE

“You’re a jerk.” Milly slammed her hands on her hips.  The smoke billowing under the door filled her nostrils, making her eyes water.  Getting caught in this cubbyhole of an office had not been her plan.

“A jerk?  I’m trying to save you.” Jakob grabbed the gun from his waist, his voice lowering to a growl.

Her abdomen heated from the possessive tone.  “I don’t need saving.”  She inched to his side, careful to step over the broken board.  His scent of sage and man wafted through the smoke.  Safety.  Of a sort.

“Yes you do.”  He lifted a slat of the blinds, peering into the darkness.  His powerful shoulders blocked out the weak moonlight.  Thank God he was on her side.  The slat dropped down, dust billowing.

She fought a sneeze.  Man.  Didn’t anyone ever clean this place?  “Like I said, you’re a jerk.”  She reached for the knife in her boot.  A jerk she was going to get naked if they survived this. 

LAYER EVEN MORE

“You’re a jerk.” Milly slammed her hands on her hips. No weapons existed amongst the battered desk or metal file cabinets. The smoke billowing under the door filled her nostrils, making her eyes water.  Getting caught in this cubbyhole of an office had not been her plan.

“A jerk?  I’m trying to save you.” Jakob grabbed the gun from his waist.  Smooth and controlled, just like that time they caught the terrorist right before he fired on the President.  “Whether you like it or not.”  His voice lowered to a growl.

Her abdomen heated from the possessive tone“I don’t need saving.”  She inched to his side, careful to step over the broken board.  His scent of sage and man wafted through the smoke.  Safety.  Of a sort.

“Yes you do.”  He lifted a slat of the blinds, peering into the darkness.  “You always have, and I’m tired of waiting for you to trust me.”  His powerful shoulders blocked out the weak moonlight.  Thank God he was on her side.  The slat dropped down, dust billowing.

She fought a sneeze.  Man.  Didn’t anyone ever clean this place? Reminded her of Uncle Joe’s barn holding rusted tractors.  “Like I said, you’re a jerk.”  She reached for the knife in her bootA jerk she was going to get naked if they survived this.  Because she did get it.  And him.

We could probably keep going…but you get it.  :)